NEW YORK MILLS, Minn. — A new child care organization has come to the Perham and New York Mills, Minnesota, communities. It started out small, but in less than a year, it has garnered quite the interest from area families.

"Kids spending time outdoors is really important, and it's really something that unfortunately happens less and less these days," said Perham's Leona Cichy, who also owns New York Mills' Roots and Wings Wellness. "Being outside and being in nature and running and jumping and climbing is so important for kids, especially for younger kids."

Cichy had wanted to start a forest school for several years, but she wanted to wait until she had kids of her own. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic came in 2020. Cichy's best friend had a 3-year-old and encouraged her to to start the program in that moment, since outdoor activities were a safe option during the pandemic.

"It's always something I wanted to do," Cichy said. "When the opportunity was there, I just decided to try it."

(Left to right) Nate Stevens, Sutton Carlson, Ellery Johnston and George Ball play outside at the Roots and Wings Wildlings Forest School. (Submitted)
(Left to right) Nate Stevens, Sutton Carlson, Ellery Johnston and George Ball play outside at the Roots and Wings Wildlings Forest School. (Submitted)

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In fall 2020, Cichy opened Roots and Wings Wildlings Forest School on her 40-acre property in New York Mills. This eight-week program started off small, with 10 preschoolers one day a week, then, by the end of it, there were 14 kids on the waiting list. It grew in a very short amount of time. At the moment, Wildlings has 43 children between the ages of 3-13 enrolled, and the school operates four days a week.

Cichy believes Wildlings grew so quickly through word-of-mouth. In the past, she'd participated in programming for youth in East Otter Tail, such as the Boys and Girls Club, teaching ballet classes and even offering yoga for kids on top of her adult yoga. She thinks that, since a lot of families know who she is because of this previous programming, word on the school grew from there.

"(The growth) is extremely exciting," Cichy said. "This is the project I've done that I'm most passionate about." She's a very outdoorsy person herself. Her favorite childhood memories are going to an outdoor camp, so she wanted to offer something similar to the kids in her community.

Cichy continued, "I think (outdoor-based education) is something people in this community recognize and want for their kids."

Harper Torgerson plays on the music wall at the Roots and Wings Wildlings Forest School. (Submitted)
Harper Torgerson plays on the music wall at the Roots and Wings Wildlings Forest School. (Submitted)

Cichy said for younger kids, the school's program is very play-based because young kids learn well through play. The school has a forest classroom, trees to climb, a mud kitchen, a play construction zone and more.

Led by Cichy and two other staff members, kids are able to explore nature through hikes and other activities. They also watch how the space surrounding them changes to learn more about the world around them.

Students learn about nature in Wildlings, specifically about the natural world in Minnesota, such as animals from the area, the summer solstice and more.

Cichy said Wildlings Forest School runs on a philosophy that, "there's no such thing as bad weather," so they remain outside in rain, heat and snow. However, they also know that certain weather is unsafe. Because of that, they also have an indoor space for certain weather conditions, such as extreme cold.

By fall 2021, Wildlings aims to be a licensed child care program. During the 2021 school year, they will be offering half days of preschool programming from Tuesday through Friday mornings. Cichy hopes to offer full-day opportunities in the future once she's no longer pregnant. Prior to fall 2022, the program will be building a separate structure as a child care center on the property.

"I think (Wildlings) is something parents are really looking for," Cichy said.

Wildlings Forest School is on Cichy's 40-acre property at 35324 550th Ave. in New York Mills. Classes are $20 per day. To learn more about the program or to fill out an application for the fall 2021 program, go to wildlingsmn.com. You can also call 218-325-0234 or email Leona@rwwellness.com for more information.